There’s a fair amount of sex in Fred Rochlin‘s autobiographical performance monologue, Old Man in a Baseball Cap — and even more of it in the fleshed-out print version (published this month by HarperCollins). Among the characters in his military memoir: Maruska, a hot-blooded Yugoslavian woman who “makes fig-fig” with him at night between shots of slivovitz; Aunt Rebecca, who seduces Rochlin in the back of a truck while his uncle steers the vehicle; the burly Colonel Shoots, who pulls rank in order to bed the young men in his unit. Yet the storyteller isn’t some young, spry solo performer. Rochlin is a sweet 75-year-old acting novice and retired L.A. architect.
“I believe everybody has a story,” Rochlin says, reclining on his couch in Westwood. “Every person goes through their own personal war, their struggle in life. In Spanish it‘s called la gran lucha, the big fight.”
Rochlin is determined to get his story out there. And his trajectory in doing so started five years ago, when Rochlin saw Spalding Gray’s film Swimming to Cambodia and enrolled in a storytelling workshop with the monologist. There he began talking freely, for the very first time, about his experiences abroad in World War II as the navigator of a B-24 bomber. Rochlin followed up with a class at UCLA, and spent two months at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
His stories avoid sweeping statements about the politics of war, and focus instead on the smaller, more human details. In one chapter, he assists in the bloody C-section delivery of a baby, and that same night must bomb a small Hungarian village that was mistakenly targeted, killing thousands of innocent people. What his tales lack in literary sophistication, they make up in honesty. And appearing onstage for the first time at age 70 is its own badge of honor.
Rochlin first performed Old Man at Highways and has since taken it to various venues across the country. He battled stage fright at the Actors Theater of Louisville, playing to a crowd of several hundred, his largest ever. “I always think, right before I‘m about to go onstage, what the hell am I doing here?” he says — a question answered one night in 1998, at the B Street Theater in Sacramento, by a New York Times critic who raved about his show.
Since then, Rochlin says, “The world descended on me: producers, publishers, agents.” But Rochlin seems genuinely baffled by the attention, remaining much more in awe of his own influences: Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, Rick Reynolds and, most recently, Chris Rock, also rejecting assumptions that his monologues are cathartic and neatly tie up years of painful memories. “I don‘t know if it’s helped me. These are just stories . . . just the feelings of a young man.”
Old Man in a Baseball Cap will be performed September 9 at 7 p.m. at the Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown. For information, call (213) 228-7025.